Some things are important more for what they represent than for what they are, and for me one such is the humble shoelace. These long, thin and usually featureless strands have been threaded through shoe eyelets for over a thousand years and have changed little. There has been competition – buckles, elastic, zips, plastic and rubber (the cunning bucket-shaped back of the Croc) – and the handy but ugly Velcro – but for me the lace remains supreme. In my shoes I would have nothing else

But in everyday life, it is not so much the lace, more the tying. I am talking of the infamous bow, and tying a bow is very a special skill, so much so that the capacity to do it is listed in paediatric text books as a milestone of growing up. It is taken as an example of a ‘fine motor skill’ and as something children should be doing by age 5-6 years. Tying one’s laces is also something that gets difficult in older age. With inflexibility or the loss of coordination, such problems can usher in what might be dubbed ‘the age of Velcro’.

But enough of this meandering. For some unexpected reason, my shoe laces came to the fore in late May. An old pair had finally fallen apart: one member had snapped, the other had lost an aglet. The cobbler asked me what length I needed. I had no idea, so I put my shoe on the counter and, after counting the number of eyelets and looking at the style of the shoe, he sold me a pair of the right length. But they were not.

There are formulae for calculating lace-length, but whatever system he had used they were a good 15cm too long. As a consequence, I have been forced to tie a double bow to use up the additional centimetres. The problem is that whenever I tie or untie these double bows or unpick them when they are knotted (at least three times a week), I start to think of the extra time it takes. Then, perhaps bizarrely, on each occasion my mind moves to issues of life expectancy. I find myself reasoning that I have a finite time to live and that I can ill afford to waste it in this way. The problem is that I am a man in a hurry [see Man in a hurry, 6th Dec, 2010] and why on earth I don’t just throw the irksome pair away and buy ones of the correct length is beyond me.

There is another time-waster that gets my goat like this and, unlike the laces, it is a life-long acquaintance. I am dyslexic and when I type, I find it very difficutl to write correclty and speefily. (I have left the italicised phrase as typed, to illustrate the problem.) Going back and making corrections wastes hours, possibly days each year. For the last 20 or so years, the time spent correcting these typos regularly triggers a switch that reminds me how I am wasting invaluable bits of what I have left. But here, unlike the tying and untying of double bows, there is nothing to be done.

But I also have a success to report. I have always been a light sleeper and in my twenties decided that if I woke up at night and couldn’t get back to sleep I would get up and do something – write, read, do the dishes (no washer then!) etc.

I was already determined not to waste a moment. It worked well for me and as a doctor when patients told me of their insomnia and pressed me for sleeping tablets my experience would prevail. Instead of the expected sympathy they would get – – “That’s wonderful; if you get up and do something you can achieve so much more in life. Moreover you will not need hypnotics”. This advice was always greeted with expressions of surprise. No one asked me again and, as far as I know, none took up the suggestion.

What a waste!

2 thoughts on “The parable of the humble shoe lace

  1. Post script. In this blog I puzzled as to why I had not thrown the overlong pair of laces away and bought a replacement. Yesterday, some 10 weeks later, I did. I am pleased to say that the new shorter (70cm) pair, are working well and will, I assume, be saving me valuable time. So far so good.

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  2. It is really important to have the right length of shoelaces for your shoes otherwise you’ll have problems like you mentioned. When replacing your shoelaces I always recommend measuring your current shoelaces and then buying that size.

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